What is Zen?

By: Dr. John Ankerberg, Dr. John Weldon; ©1999
The issue of Zen origins and orthodoxy is largely irrelevant for most Zen believers. The experience of Zen is what matters to them.


What is Zen?

The issue of Zen origins and orthodoxy is largely irrelevant for most Zen believers. The experience of Zen is what matters to them. As the popular Alan Watts observed, comprehending Zen is like trying to chew one’s teeth off; it simply can’t be done. Zen only “makes sense” when one enters Zen practice and achieves an altered state of “enlightened” consciousness. Put another way, Zen meditation leading to satori (enlightenment) is what makes the irrational in Zen “rational” and its absurdities “meaningful.”

Although Zen can be quite profound on one level, as we will see, at another level it is about as profound as “selling water by the river”:

The Zen master teaches his student nothing.[1]

There is nothing. Absolutely nothing! I am everything and everything is nothing![2]

To receive trouble is to receive good fortune; to receive agreement is to receive opposition. [3]

Free your mind of notions, beliefs, assumptions. I hit you with my baton (striking student). You cry “Ouch!” That “Ouch!” is the whole universe. What more is there? Is Mu different from that?[4] [“Mu” is a koan.]

Millions of people today are fascinated by Zen, even though Zen teaches them to believe in “nothing” and that they are only illusions. Zen accepts only one reality. This is termed “Not Two,” “Only Mind,” “Buddha Nature,” etc. Separate “things,” whether people, places or objects, are illusions “hiding” this one true reality.[5] Zenists presume that there is no objective world “out there,” that it is all in their mind; or, more accurately, since their mind does not exist, everything is an illusory manifestation of “Only Mind,” or the ultimate reality. The goal of Zen meditation is therefore to recognize the oneness (to experience one’s true nature) and then to reconcile, or harmonize, the oneness with the illusory duality. At this point, no observer or reconciler exists, for there is no consciousness of a division between observer and what is observed.

Because Zen is not concerned with the historical Buddha or his alleged teachings, but only with his purported mystical consciousness, the “Buddha” is symbolic of an internal reality, which is found in Zen meditation. “Only Mind” and “the Buddha” are two terms for the monistic (oneness) experience that Zen calls an experience of reality. Although reality is outwardly illusory, everyone is inwardly one essence with reality, and thus in one sense everyone is the Buddha, or his mystical experience of reality. “People think they are doing various things, but actually it is the Buddha doing them.” [6]

Because Zen involves a denial of everything, and is inherently contradictory, readers can expect to encounter significant confusion in studying Zen. However, for the Zenist, it is the other six billion people who are deluded: he, at least, has found the “Truth.” [7] Suzuki laments, “But in the world, alas, there are so many living corpses wallowing in the mud of ignorance.”[8] Another Zen teacher exclaims, “most of the people in the world are heretics.” [9]

In the material that follows, we will look at: the definition of Zen; some common beliefs and features of Zen; the two main schools of Zen; the central practice of Zen — meditation or zazen; the nonsense riddles (koans) given by the Roshi or Zen Master and the goal of Zen — enlightenment or satori.

Definition of Zen

Like Brahman, who the Hindus define as “not this, not that” (“neti, neti”), Zen is beyond all definition. “Zen masters, in fact, look upon mere definitions and explanations as dry and lifeless, and as ultimately misleading because they are inherently limited.”[10] When asked “What is Zen?” by a disciple, Ummon replied, “That’s It.” [11]

Defining Zen depends on one’s perspective. For some, Zen is a philosophy of life. For others it is religion not philosophy. Roshi Kennett declares, “Zen is an intuitive religion and not a philosophy or way of life.”[12] But D. T. Suzuki ar¬gues, “Is Zen a religion? It is not a religion in the sense that the term is popularly understood.” [13] Defining Zen is difficult then, since, in an ultimate sense, Zen has no required definition or, allegedly, even beliefs. Suzuki argues, “Zen has nothing to teach us in the way of intellectual analysis; nor has it any set doctrines which are imposed on its followers for acceptance…. If I am asked, then, what Zen teaches, I would answer Zen teaches nothing.” [14]

Technically speaking, whatever someone may say about Zen can be viewed as wrong, because one can only communicate dualistically (right, wrong; hot, cold), and Zen finds its heart in an experiential realm beyond dualism in oneness. This (Zen) can only be experienced, not communicated. About Zen, one cannot even declare that nothing exists. One cannot declare anything about Zen because to do so one must use concepts and concepts are part of the illusion of duality. Enlightenment means to go beyond all concepts, so therefore beyond the ideas of existence and nonexistence, logic and illogic, beyond literally everything.

A good illustration of the problem can be seen at the alt.zen website, “Frequently Asked Questions.” Here are the first three questions and partial answers. Question one is, “What is Zen (the simple question)?” We are told that Zen is sometimes called a religion, sometimes a philosophy. “Choose whichever term you prefer, it simply doesn’t matter.” Question two is, “What is Zen (the real question)?” One reply is that the essence of Zen is, “Have you eaten yet?” Question three is, “Why do people post such nonsense to this group?” The answer is that, according to Zen’s intuitive understanding, “words and sentences have no fixed meaning, and logic is often irrelevant.” The “Empty Gate Zen Center” is part of the International consortium of Zen centers known as the Kwan Um School of Zen, founded in 1977 by Zen master Seung Sahn. At its website, it describes Zen as follows: “Zen is keeping don’t know mind always and everywhere.”

So how do we define Zen? Perhaps most simply as an unusual sect of Buddhism that stresses enlightenment attained by mystical technique, contradiction and intuition.



  1. Nancy Wilson Ross, The World of Zen, an East-West Anthology (New York: Vintage Books), p. 25.
  2. Tucker N. Callaway, Zen Way—Jesus Way (Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle Co., Inc., 1976), p. 26.
  3. Alan Watts, The Way of Zen (New York: Knopf, Inc. and Random House, Inc., 1957), citing the Zenrin Kushu.
  4. Philip Kapleau, ed., The Three Pillars of Zen (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967).
  5. Some Zenists may attempt to restrict “Only Mind” to conscious beings so that plants and rocks do not share the Buddha nature, since they have no mind to perceive it. Others, like D. T. Suzuki, assert that even plants and rocks can become enlightened (John Blofeld, The Zen Teaching of Hui Hai on Sudden Illumination [New York: Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1972], p.139).
  6. Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (New York: Weatherhill, 1976), p. 126.
  7. ZCLA Journal, Summer/Fall 1973, p. 26.
  8. Daisetz Suzuki, Essays in Zen Buddhism (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1949), p. 21.
  9. ZCLA Journal, Summer/Fall 1973.
  10. Kapleau, ed., The Three Pillars of Zen, p. 67.
  11. Suzuki, Essays in Zen Buddhism, p. 115.
  12. Roshi Jiyu Kennett, Zen Is Eternal Life (Emeryville, CA: Dharma Publishing, 1976), p. 13.
  13. Robert Sohl and Audrey Carr, eds., The Gospel According to Zen, Beyond the Death of God (New York: The New American Library, 1970), p. 14.
  14. D.T. Suzuki, “What Is Zen,” in ibid., pp. 13-14.

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